Natural Light Versus Artificial Light: Which is Better?

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Light is the backbone of photography. Without light, there are no photos. After all, the word photo means light. However, which type of lighting is best: natural or artificial? There are a lot of proponents for either camp, but this article will try and dissect the argument from both perspectives, and give you a chance to add your opinion at the end.

Natural Light

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The arguments in favor of natural light are many, which means it’s not difficult to see why it is attractive to many photographers.

The pros of natural light

Cost

Natural light costs nothing to make use of; there are plenty of gadgets and accessories available, such as reflectors and diffusers, that do help to maximize results, but even without them, it is easy enough to get beautiful results using natural light, without spending any money. This apparent lack of a financial entry barrier makes it much easier for most photographers to immediately assume a preference for natural lighting.

Learning Curve

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Learning how to see, manipulate and utilize light, whether natural or artificial, is the most critical skill set for a photographer to learn. Fortunately, these break down into many individual skills that can be learned one at a time. In terms of natural light, a lot of these skills are easy to learn and put into practice. For example, you can read a tutorial on using an area open shade to diffuse and soften the light, then put it into immediate practice ten minutes later.

Another thing to keep in mind here is that cameras are designed for use in natural light first. So, a new photographer working their way through the technical basics of their camera, such as metering, aperture and shutter speed, is almost certainly learning with natural light, thereby improving both their camera and lighting skills simultaneously.

Semantics

This point may seem a bit strange, but I have seen it crop up in various conversations, and it does affect some people’s perceptions. We live in a world that is currently obsessed with the word natural. It seems difficult to go more than five minutes without seeing words like organic, all-natural and free from. Of course, most of this applies to food and health products, but the mindset and lifestyle that go with it have become so expansive, that it has seeped into all manner of other aspects in our lives. Whether or not you buy into that sort of thing, try to ask yourself what sounds better and more appealing: natural or artificial? This may not seem rational in terms of photography (an inorganic, mechanical medium), but the appeal is more of an emotional one, and more often than not, emotion trumps rationale.

The biggest concern here is one of marketing. A photographer who refers to themselves as a natural light photographer may very well simply be attempting to appeal to the quite large demographic that holds value over that kind of thing.

The cons of natural light

natural-light-versus-artificial-light-0962While natural light has its advantages, it is not without its own set of shortcomings.

Unpredictability

While the sun is a near constant during daylight hours, the availability of light is only one factor that needs to be taken into account. Clouds and other weather conditions are just a couple examples of things that will alter specific qualities of the light you are trying to work with. Softness, intensity, and color can all change in a split second at the whim of mother nature. If you are attempting to work towards a specific goal, these changes can be a nightmare.

Night

After sunset, what do you do if you’re in a situation where you still want (or need) to take photographs. If you’re relying solely on natural light, the answer is: not a whole lot. Many photographers have no problem with this limitation; however, try to imagine what you can achieve with just another hour or two a day working towards your photography.

Environment

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Aside from its effect on light, shooting outdoors means you are at the constant mercy of the weather. Cold temperatures, rain, snow, and wind can all make for some uncomfortable experiences for both you and your subjects or clients.

If you’re photographing in areas open to the public, you may be subject to the whims of passers-by. This can lead to an unwelcome audience, or even worse, hecklers. Believe me when I relate, that nothing kills the general mood of a session for both the subject and the photographer faster than excessive and undue attention from strangers.

These environmental problems can often be solved by finding an indoor location and using window light. While the effects of weather and other people are gone, this solution is not without its own limitations. Window light, while often beautiful for photography, can be quite dim and may require slower shutter speeds than you might like for portrait photography. A lack of space is also a common problem when shooting indoors.

Artificial light

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Like natural light, artificial light, whether strobes, flashguns or continuous lighting, has its own set of advantages and shortcomings.

The pros of artificial light

Convenience

By owning an artificial lighting solution, you have the means to take photographs at any time day or night, indoors or out, and the weather has no effect on you. If for some reason you want to do food photography at midnight, by all means, go for it.

If you own a set of flashguns (speedlights), they are not only convenient, but portable as well, and can be taken just about anywhere and set up with ease.

Versatility

With studio strobes and the like, the sheer number of ways that they can be used for a vast array of creative results is their strongest selling point. These range from simple one light setups that mimic natural light, to complicated setups with seven or more lights.

Control

Another great strength of studio lighting is the control it offers you over your final photograph. By controlling every bit of light in your scene, artificial lighting negates the unpredictability that you get with natural light. If you want a particular look or mood, all that you have to do is set up the lights, and take photos until you have your results. There’s no worry that a cloud will move in and block your light.

Reliability

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Apart from removing the environmental issues associated with natural light, studio strobes and flashguns are quite reliable. Most models in the moderate price range, and above, are very well made. This means that the power output, as well as color output, is consistent every time it fires. This a huge advantage over the fast changing conditions of natural light.

The cons of artificial light

Cost

natural-light-versus-artificial-light-4563Probably the most off-putting aspect of studio lighting is cost. It doesn’t matter whether you choose studio strobes, flashguns (speedlights), or continuous lighting; decent quality lighting equipment does not come cheap and a good set, along with modifiers, can easily cost over $1000. With natural light being a free and capable resource, it’s easy to understand why so many photographers steer clear of artificial lighting.

Learning Curve

Another initial disadvantage of studio lighting is the amount of knowledge you have to gain, in order to start using it. It’s very possible to accidentally take a beautifully lit photo in natural light. With artificial light, that’s next to impossible.

A lot of photographers, me included, would probably gladly tell you how atrocious their first attempts with studio lighting were. To get good results, you have to spend an enormous amount of time reading and practicing. This involves things like new aspects of aperture and shutter speed in relation to flash, qualities of light, effects of modifiers and the dreaded inverse square law.

So, which is better?

In my opinion? Neither and both are better.

It depends on the job at hand. Both are just tools to be used at each photographer’s discretion. After all, nobody walks into a newly built house and waxes lyrical about the type of hammers that were used. Good photography is good photography, no matter how it was made. If something screams out to be lit with natural light, then natural light is better. Likewise with artificial light.

Each method is capable of stunning results and I would rather have a full toolkit to use for every opportunity, than miss out on something because I restricted myself from using the right tool for the job.


Editor’s Note: This is one of a series of articles this week that are Open for Discussion. We want to get the conversation going, hear your voice and opinions, and talk about some possibly controversial topics in photography.

Give us your thoughts below on the article above on natural versus artificial, and watch for more discussion topics this week.

See all the recent discussion topics here:

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John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography at Leeds Metropolitan University. He is obsessive with photography and is always trying to learn something new. You can find him on Instagram as @johnwhitneyphoto for portraits and @macjw2 for landscapes and travel.

  • kenneth

    Natural lighting is good for those who does not want to invest too much in artificial lighting equipment, it is convenient and easy to set up a shot but the downside is unpredictable and shooting time is short.

  • Good article John. Like you, I use both depending on the situation. I lean towards natural light when the situation allows. Often times, I mix natural and artificial, shooting primarily natural with just a bit of artificial to fill in the shadows. But like you mentioned in the article, there’s a learning curve to get to that level.

  • I have been using nothing but natural light, and I think mainly because I have been intimidated by using flash. I just got my first speedlight about a month ago and have been learning all over again it seems. I absolutely love using it for fill flash and trying to get a good balance that I like has been a challenge as I am still new into it. I just know my world got a whole lot bigger.

  • Although I’ve very well learned how to use flashes while I was studying commercial photography, my go-to has always been natural light. My inspiration comes from nature, from props that happen to be there, from scenes that I discover the same day depending on the weather and the angle of the light. I’ve been told by one of my teachers that shooting in a studio is really not the best for me and I have to agree with that, I seem to lose all creativity when it’s in a controlled environment. There’s no rock for the model to stand on, no water for the model to play into, no grass for the model to lie down on. Sure, I could use a flash, but then I’d have to mostly stick to that location or else I’d need to change my light again whereas the sun (or the cloudy sky) just stays where it is and it looks pretty.

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  • Clarke Warren

    Let’s substitute “Sunlight” for “Natural,” ok? I think we can all agree that raw sunlight very rarely provides us with pleasant portraits. It needs to be manipulated – diffused, blocked and/or reflected. Our author’s first set of examples use very nicely diffused light, and probably some reflectors, (and maybe a little fill-flash on the one with the eye highlights) from the very soft lighting on the subject’s face. The examples of artificial lighting show a somewhat harder light. This can easily be softened by using a diffuser, to match the light in the first examples. So – we would not shoot in studio with bare bulbs, and we would not shoot outside with the sun directly on our subject… Light is light, and we need to control it, wherever we are. Great article John…

  • Keith Phillip Yeoman

    I agree with the statement that there are no rights or wrongs in this discussion. I used to work as an Intelligence photographer whereby most of my work disbarred the used of speedlights for obvious reasons. Speedlights or “flash” were only ever used for shots of evidence in poor light situations, we had to learn to push film in order to get what we needed in poor light. Years later I began working in studio, a time where I learned the amazing and creative power of “lighting” as opposed to “available” light, in my preferred genre of landscape photography I have traditionally operated as what would be described as an available light photographer, a title which tends to go hand in hand with landscapes, it is only more recently that I have begun to utilise speedlights and radio controllers in woodland and close subject outdoor work. The opportunities for both enhancing an image and the scope for learning afforded to the photographer by using off camera lighting are amazing. Some may say that the cost of multiple speedlights and controllers is only justifiable to pro’s, this argument no longer holds water with the advent of brands such as Yongnu who offer excellent speedlights and controllers at minimal cost. I’d advise anyone who hasn’t yet dabbled in speedlights work to give it a try, it might just surprise if not amaze what can be achieved.

  • pete guaron

    What is “natural” light depends entirely on the circumstances. It can be defined** as light from “natural” sources – ultimately, on this planet, the sun (whether it is direct from the sun or bounced off some other object, such as the moon – or anything else, for that matter).
    **[other definitions may be possible, but that’s the most common one]

    The only “right” or “wrong” choice between that and “artificial” (man-made?) light is surely based on what produces the better photograph.

    Professionals – running to a timetable – are likely to make more use of artificial lighting. Others may well prefer to explore the available lighting effects and finish up with all sorts of solutions.

    Saying “this is what I do” is fine. Going on to suggest that doing anything else is wrong, for some reason, is not fine. Opinions have no intrinsic merit or validity – at best they “agree” or “differ”, but they resolve nothing – and serve merely as a topic for conversation and discussion.

  • John McIntire

    Thanks Wes! Glad to see others that see the value in both. The learning curve is intimidating, I just hope more people start to see that it’s not as insurmountable as it seems and opens up a world of possibilities. Thanks for commenting!

  • John McIntire

    Hi Patrick, it’s good to hear you’re facing the intimidation and getting to grips with your flash. Hope it goes well and you enjoy the challenges it presents.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Clarke. You’re right. Unless there’s a concious decision for not modifying light in some way, then light should be controlled in each situation. The topic of this discussion; however, isn’t whether or not light should be controlled and modified.The intention here was to dissect and open a discussion about some arguments that state one sort of light is better than the other. While not a majority of photographers do this, it can descend into base tribalism where each side berates and denigrates the other. It’s in the same vein of other ridiculous and time wasting arguments like: Canon vs Nikon, film vs digital, cats vs dogs or Cheddar vs Wensleydale. I apologise if I missed my mark and failed to get that across.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Pete, thanks for commenting. I couldn’t agree more that the right choice is the one that produces the better photograph. I also agree with your last sentence. Suggesting that someone else is wrong for choosing differently, and then disparaging them for those choice is never appropriate. Thanks for adding that.

  • John McIntire

    Hi Keith, thanks for your insight. It’s good to hear you describe the opportunities that working with both types of lighting provides to you. Thanks for adding the bit about lower priced models of speedlight. I have no experience with them, so wouldn’t presume to mention them in the article, but it’s good to hear experienced people’s views on them.

  • John McIntire

    Thanks for adding your perspective here. It’s good to hear that you’ve explored both options, even if one was ultimately a much clearer fit for you creatively. You make a good point in showing that the right tool for the job isn’t only dependent on the light itself, but also how the photographer reacts and interacts with it. Thanks for that.

  • Clarke Warren

    No apology required – I see your point, and applaud the effort to get the discussion started. Hmmm… Wensleydale? Now Ive gotta look that up… Keep up the good work

  • pete guaron

    Why it annoys me is simple. I am concentrating on “light” at the moment – hurling myself into an exploration of what I can achieve with digital (vs analogue). And discovering so much that I’d probably been ignoring or taking for granted – looking, but not really seeing.

    Perhaps I can give an example – discussing sunset effects while talking to other people in the park, walking our dogs. They only “look west” – and they are quite startled if I suggest they should turn 180 degrees & look east, to see what sunsets do to the sky behind them – or north, or south, which can be just as interesting.

    Or “white balance” – didn’t have that kind of control with film – and there’s seemingly no such thing as “sunlight”, no such thing as “one light fits all”. Natural light comes down from the heavens or streams in through the window or fights its way around trees & buildings & into the shadows, in a zillion different shades, colors, intensities.

    I am reminded of the French impressionist school and the fights they had with the Academy – and the famous series of haystacks that Claude Monet did. Perhaps photographers should do as most of the best artists have done in the past – study the masters – see what they did, learn from it, understand it, “imitate” it purely for the purpose of learning and understanding. And then – and ONLY then – go off and develop their own style.

    Maybe we can breed up a whole generation of new “photographers”, who create – and who leave something more than clones & snapshots behind them.

  • Tim Lowe

    When done well, the viewer should not be able to tell the difference.

  • Shivangi Shah

    hi, Natural lighting is good for those who does not want to invest too much in artificial lighting equipment, it is convenient and easy to set up a shot but the downside is unpredictable and shooting time is short. Admitcard Result

  • Charlie Barker

    Cheddar wins hands down

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